Imagine you are the parent of a second grader, and it is time to pick her up from school. You’ve been waiting in line for a while, and then you see your child. She has a defeated look on her face. You pull up to the front of the pick-up line and motion for her to get into the car. She gets in, puts on her seat belt, and the moment you start to pull away, tears are streaming down her face. She isn’t throwing a tantrum which has a different quality; she is calm but clearly very sad. “I hate school! I don’t have any friends!” she exclaims. You look in the rearview mirror to see your daughter’s tear-drenched face; it breaks your heart to see her so distressed. You would say or do anything to make her feel better. When presented with a situation like the one described above, most parents will make at least one of three parenting mistakes, all of which are well-intentioned. The first mistake parents tend to make is that they begin to ask a lot of questions. You may wonder what is wrong with asking questions. Well, questions are inherently stressful for children. You might have noticed that children will often give you a blank look when you ask them even the most harmless of questions like “How was your day?” or “Did you have fun?” Questions elicit anxiety in children, so as a rule it’s best for adults to try to avoid asking children questions. When a child is already demonstrating high levels of emotion, it is even more important to avoid asking questions. In the above scenario, if the parent makes this mistake, he or she might start asking the child, “Why are you saying you don’t like school? Did something happen today at school? Do you have a bully? Is someone bullying you? Why would you say you have no friends?” It can be truly overwhelming to a child. The second mistake many parents make in this type of situation is to reassure and deny whatever seems to be upsetting the child. So, in reference to the above example, the parent might say, “Oh, honey, that isn’t true at all! You have so many friends! Why just this morning I saw you talking and laughing with Susan, and last weekend we had Cindy over to our house; didn’t we? You love school! You said so just yesterday!” As mentioned, this response is well-intentioned, but the result is that the child ends up not feeling heard or understood in the moment. The child’s feelings and perception of reality are invalidated. Think about it. Even as an adult who has friends and people who care, you can have a bad day where it FEELS like you have no one. That’s a feeling, and it’s valid. The third most common mistake parents make in this type of situation is to go straight into fix-it mode. When a child skins his knee, his parents get Neosporin and a band-aid. When a child complains about a painful splinter, her parents get some tweezers and locate the splinter to dig it out. Therefore, it makes sense that when a child expresses a painful emotion, parents likewise jump into action to try to solve the problem and make it all better. Unfortunately, when the parent responds in this way when his or her child is expressing an intense emotion, the outcome—as with the previous two responses—is that the child does not feel heard or understood. We’ve all seen situations that seem to continue to escalate, and we wonder why. The child is crying, angry, complaining. The parent is desperately explaining what he or she will do to fix the situation to make it all better, and the child ends up crying even harder, throwing things, yelling, even hitting, or worse. As long as children do not feel heard, emotions and situations will continue to escalate. What can parents do instead of using one of these three less-than-ideal responses? In this case, the simplest response is the best response. Children feel most heard and best understood when parents reflect back to them the emotion that they are expressing at that moment. For the child who is crying in the back seat of the car, the parent would say, “You’re sad” and just allow the child to sit in that emotion for the time being. For a child who storms into the house after losing a game, the parent would say, “You’re really mad,” so the child’s feelings of anger are acknowledged and validated. Children live in their emotions, but it can be confusing for them. When children lack emotional self-awareness, they are much more likely to react on impulse in response to their overwhelming emotions. This is the child who suddenly explodes in an angry outburst, slams a door, maybe even throws an item across the room. Reflecting on emotions is an important skill that will be addressed in more detail in other blog posts, but for now consider it a huge achievement the next time your child is emotional, and you resist asking lots of questions, denying and reassuring, and/or going into fix-it mode, as so many parents tend to do. Best of luck!